Belfast Telegraph

Withdrawn role 'very rewarding'

Military life in Afghanistan has changed greatly as troops take a back seat and let local security forces take over, soldiers have said.

As UK troops start returning home, key bases are shut around Helmand province and beyond, and authority passes to the Afghan Army and police, soldiers have described how tours are much quieter now, but rewarding in a different way.

For 4 Rifles, a light role infantry battalion, their work in securing areas in Nahr-e Saraj, parts of which were once hotly contested by the insurgents, has been fruitful because as they pull out from theatre they believe Afghan forces will be able to maintain security and fight off any threats.

Major Aaron West, 31, said he had seen some major differences in the local security forces from his first tour to his current one, which he hopes will be his last deployment to Afghanistan.

"The difference between seeing them between my previous tours and today is astounding, really.

"For me personally it's been very rewarding. After being in the forefront of the fight in 2009 to now see the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) doing what we were doing - it's very rewarding."

He has just two and a half weeks left before returning home to Plymouth in Devon. He said it will be a happy homecoming because he feels the work done to train and mentor the Afghan forces has been successful.

He said: "I think I'm glad to be going, and I think I can say that because having seen it from the start in 2009, which was probably round about the worst time, it was very kinetic in those years, to come back now and see the transition, to see the ANSF and how well they are doing.

"I'm quite happy that I've done the full spectrum. To see it from start to finish - that's enough for me."

Shaun Ridler, Warrant Officer 2 Sergeant Major, 38, from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, said this tour had been a lot more subdued compared to his previous experiences, which was down to the ANSF "pushing forward and they've done quite a lot of operations by themselves, and they've shown that they're ready to go".

Asked how that had affected his tour and that of his colleagues, he explained: "The role we've done this time is more of a step back of mentoring, we're still there just in case they need us, we're like their back up.

"If they go out and get into a bit of a sticky situation then we are here to be called upon.

"The lads understand that they know that the main effort was to hand over to the lads in the area, the ANSF.

"They have found it a bit quiet, sometimes they've been sat back but they've all been ready to go and as soon as we've pushed them out on patrols they've been ready to go."

Part of 4 Rifles' role in the region was to close down Patrol Base 2, which had been a hotbed of insurgency in recent times.

Just three weeks ago an attempt was made by insurgents to enter the village from the green zone.

Afghan forces were able to repel the attack, which lasted for quite some time, with little help from UK troops on the ground.

Corporal Paul Jones, 4 Rifles, 33, from Liverpool, said they were "more than capable of being able to handle this area" and it was the right time to begin drawing out British resources.

He will return home to his wife Dawn, his five-year-old son Matthew and nine-month-old baby boy Robert.

Cpl Jones added: "It's been an enjoyable tour, definitely a different challenge to previous Herricks (operations) I've gone on because we've had to stand back and have confidence in the ANSF to deal with things that are happening in this area.

"In the surrounding area things do happen on a daily basis, so it's difficult that we haven't been going out to deal with those things and doing what we normally do and let them take the lead role.

"It's been definitely challenging."

Lieutenant Si Jackson, 2 Troop Commander for 39 Armoured Engineer Squadron, 32 Engineer Regiment, is one of the soldiers who is new in theatre and will be taking over some of the work transitioning bases and stripping out force protection.

The 31-year-old Bangor, Northern Ireland-born soldier said that for engineers, who usually build bases, it would be a "new challenge" during his eight-and-a-half month tour, which is longer than the usual six months.

Asked if training was different as UK troops hand over full control to the Afghans, he said: "The drawdown clearly shows the progress that's been made.

"For us the training was just as rigorous as every other tour because you have to be prepared for every eventuality, but throughout that training the message has always been we are handing over to the Afghan Security Forces.

"They're more than capable of doing what we were doing so it's the right time and it's quite exciting to be a part of that."

The British presence in Afghanistan will be almost halved by the end of this year to 5,200.

All combat operations in the country should be over by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan forces fully in control.

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